Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is probably best known for his book “Ravens.” That book was made between 1975 and 1986 and is a searingly personal meditation on loss and bereavement that came about as a result of Fukase’s divorce from his wife. It has been hailed by many critics over the years, with some even saying that it is the best photo book of all time. What is objectively true about Fukase’s work, though, is that it is all very personal. His book, “Family” (“Kazoku” in Japanese) is no exception.
Fukase’s “Family” was released in 1991 and was his last book. In 2019, Mack books issued a handsome reprint of the book, making it available to photography enthusiasts and photo book collectors again. The book contains 31 images that, taken together, form a kind of family album. But this collection of images is anything but what one would normally conceive of when thinking about a photo album. It’s much more conceptual and, yes, personal.
Fukase’s family ran a photo studio in Bifuka, a small town on Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island. His father, Sukezo, hoped that Fukase, the eldest son, would take over the studio. From a young age, Sukezo taught his son the family trade, including how to process prints. When he turned 18, Fukase left Hokkaido and moved to Tokyo, where he attended Nihon University for a formal education in photography. But rather than returning to take over the family business after graduating, Fukase stayed in Tokyo to work as a commercial photographer.
During his time in Tokyo, Fukase also started to work in more conceptual terms, finding his voice as an artist. That would propel him toward working on more personal projects that would include not only “Ravens” but also “Family” and “Memories of Father.”
In 1971, at age 35, Fukase returned to Hokkaido, where he began to take portraits of his family members in the family photo studio. For the next 21 years, he made numerous visits home, where he visited the studio and his family and took their portraits. Fukase would do this all the way through the death of his father in 1987 and finished in 1989 when the family studio closed after going bankrupt.
Flipping through the book, one is immediately aware that this is not going to be a conventional family album. For one thing, Fukase often introduced models (sometimes nude) who were not part of the family into the photos. Additions like this lend a surreal element of humor to the book. But the photos can take a dark turn, too.
One example of this can be seen in a photo of Fukase and his father together. They have their shirts off and are staring into the camera. The younger Fukase, standing and with his hands on his seated father’s shoulders, is seemingly healthy, while the elder Fukase is nearly skin and bones, old and frail. It is a searing portrait that can be taken as a complex commentary on the relationship (probably not happy) between a father and son as well as a meditation on mortality. And as the years go by and family members die, their funeral portraits begin to appear in the group portraits in their stead. Along with being a unique collection of family memories made from an artist’s perspective, the book is largely a portrait of the dissolution and death of the family unit.
You can find out more information about the book on Mack’s website, here.
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